Cities play a central role in innovation and creation of economic opportunity. Since the early days of human civilization, cities have depended on technology to improve quality of life (including the way people get around). That’s one of the core principles behind URBAN-X, the urbantech startup accelerator built by MINI and Urban Us.
Each new advance—from Roman aqueducts to the electrical grid powering the City of Lights—solved problems from a previous generation and created huge opportunities for the next. For thousands of years, the most difficult challenges of urban life turned cities into crucibles of innovation, culture, economic vibrancy, and creativity.
Most of today’s ubiquitous technologies emerged from the demands of city living: street lighting, the elevator, the automobile above ground, and the Metro below, the telephone, smartphone, and the cellular networks that power them.
A century ago in the US, urban mobility was undergoing a tectonic shift. General Electric was a startup bringing the first electricity grid to life in downtown Manhattan. Ford’s assembly line made the motor vehicle common place. Otis Elevator came to life in Yonkers, New York. Today, with Uber, Lyft, Bird, and AirBnb, the cycle continues, only now with multiple new technologies and platforms, more capital, and a more sophisticated and distributed startup ecosystem.
While new generations of technology enabled cities to grow, for every positive outcome, there were also unintended negative consequences—everything from traffic and affordable housing shortages to CO2 emissions and job displacement. As counterintuitive as it may seem in the age of digital transformation and the Internet of Things, modern cities struggle to be early adopters of tech.
As consumers, we constantly fiddle with new products and services. If new products don’t work well, we move on. But this is much more challenging for leaders charged with running cities. What happens if electric scooters clog the streets? What is an acceptable risk when trying new road surfacing materials? What’s an acceptable failure rate for a self-driving bus?
It’s not just city government that has to worry constantly about the public interest.
Private organizations manage a great deal of what makes cities possible. Real estate firms, utilities, logistics companies, and others grapple with questions such as, “How will new energy storage behave in the next hurricane? How do I work with water equipment installed inside a customer’s home when I’ve spent decades just delivering water to their home?”
Because they are predicated on agile development and are close to their customers’ problems, startups are uniquely positioned to solve some urban problems, but they face unique challenges when working with cities and the large, established industries that manage critical city services and infrastructure.
That’s why URBAN-X was created—to help a new class of urbantech startups engineer the city-as-a-service and steer past the roadblocks; from how best to work with city governments, automotive OEMs and highly regulated marketplaces such as energy and real estate, to dealing with slow budget cycles and local bureaucracies. MINI experts guide founders in design, manufacturing, engineering, marketing, community building, and branding. Urban Us connects startups with a leading community of founders, investors, companies, and city officials.
Together, MINI and Urban Us have helped capitalize over 50 startups who are working with more than 100 global cities. Each startup pursues an aspirational goal and is to get their solution into 100 cities within the next five years. For companies starting in the EU and interested in expanding in the US, like Bordeaux-based Qucit, URBAN-X provides ‘soft-landing’ services and help with both customer acquisition and fundraising from US investors.
Among our portfolio are companies shaping the future of mobility. Companies such as Roadbotics, using machine learning to make road assessments affordable and automated, is now in more than 75 cities around the world. Lunewave is helping make autonomous vehicles safe and affordable, leveraging 3D printing to create new architectures that enable more powerful antennas with greater range and accuracy than the sensing technologies currently on the market. Numina is making cities more responsive by empowering them with the most comprehensive and dynamic view of multimodal traffic yet. They’re working with six top-50 metro cities in the US and in less than two years, are emerging as the leader in street-level intelligence. Park and Diamond is making safety gear for micro-mobility; their portable, collapsible bike helmet racked up more than $670,000 in pre-orders in less a month on Indiegogo.
We’re looking to work with up to 20 new teams in 2019. We work with founders who have proven it’s possible to build startups that deliver both public benefits and outsized venture returns. They have attracted funding from many of the best known venture firms, such as Baidu Ventures, Fontinalis, and BMW iVentures, and count some of the leading public and private organizations in the US and EU as their customers.
We can’t make startups easy, but we’ve developed a program and a playbook to increase your chances of building not just great companies, but the great cities of tomorrow, today.